With thirty novels on the New York Times Bestseller List, Lisa Wingate has been nominated or received many awards for her writing, including the Utah Library Award, The Oklahoma Book Award, The RT Bookloverss Reviewers’ Choice Award, and many others. Wingate was also given the National Civics Award for promoting kindness and civility in American life. Booklist praised her writing by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.” That statement can be said of her current book on the Bestseller list, Before We Were Yours.
“They can never know about Arcadia,” were the words Judy Stafford said to her granddaughter, Avery, that sent her on an investigation to find out the truth about her family history. The Stafford family had been in the spotlight for a long time. Avery was a lawyer, and her father was a Senator. In her search, Avery runs into a woman named May Crandall, who has a mysterious connection to Judy, and a photograph to prove it. With the help of Trent Turner, a real estate agent, Avery begins to dig through her grandmother’s possessions. She finds strange letters in her typewriter about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a photograph with the caption “Sisters’ Day,” and interrogates May about her connection to the situation.
The truth about the women’s past is shown to the reader before Avery discovers the truth. Every other chapter is a flashback to a family of five children who were taken from their shanty boat one night and placed in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and mistreated in this orphanage. They are only fed a small portion of corn mash every day, locked in the basement at night, verbally mistreated, and sold to upper class families. One by one, Rill Foss is separated from her younger siblings as they are sold to families. Rill tries everything she can to protect her siblings and feels empty when she can’t. “I’m the oldest. I was supposed to look after everybody.” It had been the last instructions her father gave before he had left the children to take his pregnant wife to the hospital. “Rill, keep care of everybody, till we get back.”
The concept of moving back and forth between Rill and Avery felt very natural as the book progressed. Rill was a girl from the 1930s, raised on the river. Avery was a high-class, social role model in her community. Despite the different writing styles every other chapter, the flow of the book was easy to follow. These two characters that lived in very different worlds had a connection that brought their separate plots into one full, beautiful story.
The development of both characters brought the story forward as it unfolded. Avery was changed through her search process to find herself as someone beyond the standards of society. Desperate to return to her parents, Rill tried to run away from her new home, unable to accept her new parents when she had her own. “I thought if I could just get back to the Arcadia, that’d fix everything, it’d fix me.” It wasn’t until she returned to the shanty boat that Rill realized her former life was gone and she had to accept her new reality. “I learned that you need not to be born in a family to be loved by one.”
Although Rill and her siblings were fictional, the scandal at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society did happen between the 1920s and 1950. Georgia Tann kidnapped children from their parents and sold them to high-class families that were willing to pay a high adoption fee. Tann tricked mothers into signing over their infants, oiled them to believe their babies were stillborn. The adopting families were also tricked into paying large out-of-state fees for the children. She changed the names and lied about the background of the children.. During their time at the orphanage, the children were mistreated. Many of the families were not reunited after the orphanage was closed. The scandal was something I had never learned before, and I was interested to learn about the process by following these characters I quickly found myself growing attached to.
Knowing the circumstances in the book were based off real events, I found the book very emotional. I felt as determined as Avery did through her search to discover the truth of her family’s past. I would recommend this book to readers of any genre. Wingate truly does have a natural talent for storytelling. This book is a well written fictional piece that brings real elements of history into a beautiful tale of loss, letting go, and learning to love again.